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Faith in the Media: How Do We Improve Reporting on Religion and Belief?

17/08/2013 16:50 BST | Updated 16/10/2013 10:12 BST

"The media is to blame" is a typical refrain at many an interfaith gathering. It seems that religions find common ground in their agreement that the media is the cause of many of the problems between religions and between religions and wider society. In their study on Perception for the Royal Statistical Society, Ipsos MORI found that the average person believes that 24% of the UK's population is Muslim (in reality it is 4-5%). Clearly, our knowledge of the world around us is skewed, and the narratives and information we receive through the media in many ways frames our view of the world. As the famed philosopher on communication theory Marshall McLuhan once said "Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either."

The results of the Leveson Inquiry highlighted some of the inaccuracies in reporting on religion. This is nothing new and countless articles have been written on media distortion over time. Various foundations including the Rayne Foundation, through their plans for a Religion Media Centre, and the International Association of Religion Journalists are actively pursuing ways in which to improve the religious literacy of those who produce and report. There is wide agreement that we must see a cultural change in the media, and its reporting on religion.

Every year, 3FF (Three Faiths Forum) invites a prominent media personality to explore these issues in the ParliaMentors Annual Lecture. The discussants have been (chronologically in order of appearance) Jon Sopel (BBC), Jon Snow (ITN), Samira Ahmed (ITN, now BBC), Bonnie Greer, and Razia Iqbal (BBC). Their task, which is not an easy one, is to discuss the inter-relation of religion, media, and politics.

What we have seen throughout is a candid reflection on media and religion from insiders, leaders in the media industry. They all seem to recognise their authority as influencers and acknowledge that together with their producers, they help to shape news. They all seem to see the inherent difficulties in reporting. They all acknowledge that the objectivity of the narratives that are created may be undermined by either the personal biases of the reporter or the reporter's lack of knowledge. This is particularly true for narratives involving religion.

"Each like-minded group creates stereotypes. And the single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they're untrue, just that they're incomplete. They make one story become the only story. How stories are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories told are dependent on power." - Razia Iqbal

Often we have heard that a newsroom is an 'unreligious place'. Journalists have pointed out that, a religious newsroom would undermine objectivity. Does the culture of the newsroom need to be secular? Or multifaith or belief - one that is informed by different worldviews? It would be foolish to suggest having a quota of religious and non-religious people in the newsroom, but the knowledge and deep understanding needs to be there. Are journalists sufficiently skilled in the language of different faiths and traditions to be accurately reporting news about religion and belief?

"We should all as journalists [...] bother to find out basic stuff about the society which we live in and people's beliefs. I am struck that newsrooms are very unreligious places but that's not necessarily a bad thing. [...] My concern is always that a journalist should be neutral but a journalist should acknowledge that there may be gaps in their knowledge. But if you have a narrow perspective or a pushing perspective that can be a problem on its own." - Samira Ahmed

It is the individuals who make the culture of the newsroom. With the news of Mishal Husain's appointment to the Today programme, we have an opportunity for the public to be informed by someone who seemingly understands the nuances of religion and community. But more often than not, when handling questions of religion and belief, journalists face the same challenges as others:

"People who work for the media are just like everybody else. They actually know very little about faith and everything is a learning curve. And one of the problems today is people want the information now and there isn't time to research." - Jon Snow

While some journalists and producers, like those quoted, have made great efforts to accurately and fairly portray faith-related stories, a BBC Trust review stated that "On reporting religion, it found there were some gaps in knowledge among some generalist (BBC) reporters". The British Humanist Asssociation also felt that the report did not take into account the failure in representation of non-religious views. Seemingly, because of these "disparities" the BBC has decided to set up a pan-BBC forum on religion and ethics. This is a positive step. We wait to see the make-up of such a forum, and whether it is genuinely "representative" of a wide diversity of views.

Decisions like this from the BBC, some of the suggestions of the Leveson Report, and the commitment of different leaders in the media, point at a development that, while slow, will hopefully make the media more understanding and representative of different worldviews. What we must make sure of is that it is a sincere engagement with this difficult topic, as the effects of doing nothing are harming our society.